Why OKC could have a crunch-time conundrum on its hands

From ESPN - October 13, 2017

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Nikola Vucevic missed his second free throw and Russell Westbrook hauled in the rebound with 12 seconds left. The Thunder were down three in Orlando last April, and as Westbrook crossed half court with 10 seconds on the clock, the Magic had already devoted two defenders, Elfrid Payton and Terrence Ross, to him on the ball. Two others, Vucevic and Evan Fournier, lurked nearby, their eyes locked on Westbrook.

Aaron Gordon was standing at the top of the key, by no one in particular, just sort of watching, leaving his man, sharpshooter Doug McDermott, entirely uncovered in the opposing corner. Gordon knew what basically everyone in the arena did. It did not matter if the Magic emptied their whole bench onto the floor. Westbrook was putting up the shot.

With a little hesitation dribble, Westbrook earned a sliver of separation, planted and elevated. A little off balance, and a little deep, but as the ball did so often in those situations last season, it went in for Westbrook. It came a night after he drilled a game-winner against the Mavericks, and a few days before he hit an iconic buzzer-beater in Denver that had an opposing arena chanting his name. Westbrook owned clutch time last season, building an MVP campaign largely on late-game heroics. Westbrook attempted 184 of the Thunder's 303 total clutch-time (last five minutes, margin within five) shots last season. His usage rate was 62.3. If it was close, or the Thunder had a big shot to take, the ball was Russell Westbrook's, full stop.

With Paul George and Carmelo Anthony now his teammates, that appears likely to change.

"Last year being with Russell and how good he was closing out games, Carmelo's been a close-out guy the places he's been, the same thing with Paul, but any time you have a team you have to do it by finding the open man," coach Billy Donovan said. "Clearly for us last year somebody creating and generating a shot for himself or someone else it was Russell, but obviously now with Carmelo and Paul being here I think it's about making the right play and right decision."

As comfortable as Westbrook was in that role last season, and as much as he relished it, it was an adjustment. His first eight seasons he spent largely deferring to Kevin Durant in clutch time. Westbrook had his moments of course, but so much of the Thunder's well-documented crunchtime issues under Scott Brooks stemmed from a lack of creativity or innovation. The Thunder wanted to force-feed the ball to Durant, even at the expense of reducing Westbrook to nothing more than a point guard who needed to dribble the ball past half court in under eight seconds and make one pass. That was for myriad reasons, of which included Durant's insistence in having the ball in those moments. During the 2015-16 season, Westbrook's clutch-time usage rate was 37.6 (Durant's was 40.2). Westbrook attempted 108 shots (Durant attempted 114).

Enter George and Anthony, who come from teams where they are accustomed to having the ball in big spots. Last season Anthony took 91 of the Knicks 310 clutch-time shots and posted a usage rate of 35.2. George took 105 of the Pacers' 263 clutch attempts, with a usage rate of 41.2. It was George, following a 109-108 Game 1 loss to the Cavaliers last postseason, expressing frustration about C.J. Miles taking the potential game-winner instead of him.

"I talked to C.J. about it," George said after the game. "In situations like that, I gotta get the last shot. I was asking for it. C.J. took it upon himself."

That was then, with the Miles and Myles Turner; this is now, with the reigning MVP and a future Hall of Famer.


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